Last time Appellate Judge James A. Stewart headed for the "world's utmost Northern rim," all he got was a souvenir T-shirt.
"I am yesterday and today and tomorrow. I am sorrow and longing and hope unfulfilled. I am Hash-a-Mo-Tep—She—She Who Must Be Obeyed."
Hilda Rumpole is nowhere to be found here. But H. Rider Haggard's 1887 adventure novel was already familiar to moviegoers from silent productions when Helen Gahagan took on the role of the mythical, immortal woman who rules a far-off land. The Broadway actress didn't last long in the movies; this is her only film. Her last appearance was on the political stage, losing a Senate race to Richard Nixon.
Producer Merian C. Cooper, who had brought the original King Kong in 1933, envisioned She as a $1 million Technicolor epic. Alas, RKO was keeping a tight watch on the budget to survive the Depression, as Mark Cotta Vaz and Ray Harryhausen explain in the commentary. The final product was a black-and-white movie that cost roughly half of its intended budget. The movie didn't fare well in its original release, but broke into the black with a 1948 theatrical re-release.
Facts of the Case
As the pendulum swings in a grandfather clock, John Vincey awaits a visit from his nephew Leo (Randolph Scott, Ride the High Country). With him is friend Horace Holly (Nigel Bruce, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon).
"What time is it now?" John asks urgently, since he has something to say to Leo tonight because "I fear that it might be my last." When Leo arrives, Holly tells him his uncle is dying of radium poisoning.
John points to the clock's swinging pendulum as he begins his tale. "That is the swinging march of man's enemy—time. Bringing death—invisible, relentless death." John has spent his life seeking the "life-prolonging flame" an ancestor found hundreds of years before, according to an ancient letter. Of course, it didn't do that earlier John Vincey any good, since he was murdered. When John passes away upon finishing his tale, Leo vows to pursue the mystery to "the world's utmost Northern rim," with Holly accompanying him.
It's hard to find guides to follow the path laid out by the letter, but Dugmore and his daughter Tanya (Helen Mack, The Front Page) are eager to go, thanks to Dugmore's belief that the two explorers are seeking gold. As the small party nears the unknown land of treasure and immortality, they find the frozen remains of a sabretooth tiger and the body of a man who isn't quite prehistoric—he may have been part of John Vincey's original expedition. Dugmore sees a glint of gold and starts attacking the frozen block with a pickaxe, setting off the avalanche that opens up a cave to a mysterious world.
In the lost land of Kor, the explorers will find She Who Must Be Obeyed (Helen Gahagan), who believes Leo to be the reincarnation of his ancestor. Will she share the secret of immortality—or will the explorers find death in the gaze of a beautiful, jealous woman?
King Kong gave Ray Harryhausen (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms) the fascination with special effects that led to a lifelong career in the movies. Harryhausen worked with Kong's stop-motion animator Willis H. O'Brien on Mighty Joe Young before launching his own career with Beast. He uses his living legend status (and the latest computer technology) to make She into the color epic that Cooper intended. In the commentary, he also discusses She, which inspired his production design in 1964's First Men in the Moon.
H. Rider Haggard described She's beauty as a "radiant countenance like a living halo." Thanks to the same lighting effects that helped enhance Greta Garbo's radiant beauty, Helen Gahagan does have a "living halo" about her in this 1935 movie. Gahagan plays She Who Must Be Obeyed with the same haughty aloofness that you'd expect from Garbo, an aloofness that was starting to lose its hold on Depression-era audiences. Since She Who Must Be Obeyed didn't make it into the pop culture lexicon until Rumpole of the Bailey came along, Gahagan's movie career both started and ended with She.
Though she's certainly lovely enough to embody immortal beauty, Gahagan is the aggressor in this soapy romantic triangle, threatening the life of Helen Mack's feisty, wholesome Tanya to capture the heart of Randolph Scott's earnest good guy Leo. Gahagan plays She as a caricature of cold-heartedness most of the way through the film, but has a good sympathetic turn near the end that shows briefly what she could have done on film. While H. Rider Haggard gave She a romantic rival in his book, the 1935 movie changes the story to emphasize that rivalry, almost overshadowing the book's theme of the cost of immortality. Helen Mack may not have that Garbo glow about her, but she presents a good argument for settling down to a finite life of responsibility, even when her material seems clichéd.
This She also brings elements of the cliffhanger to the table. Randolph Scott foreshadows his later Western success as he races to the rescue of his beloved Tanya in a fight-filled finale. As Leo, Scott changes the British gentleman with a Grecian appearance in Haggard's novel into an adventurer with a take-charge American attitude. He sounds too much like the earnest American in places, such as when he's asking She to spare the lives of several men who attacked him, or when he's contemplating immortality. You probably won't believe he'd choose immorality, but Scott does a good job playing Leo as a noble action hero who is less likely to ponder than the novel's Leo.
Nigel Bruce, who long played Watson to Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes, takes on a similar role here as Leo's traveling companion. The actors often deliver their lines with stage enunciation, which doesn't always come across as realistic, but ensures that there are no problems with the mono soundtrack.
She uses matte paintings and miniatures, along with a few impressive sets (such as a huge gate previously used in King Kong) to create the mythic world of Kor. The special-effects work still looks impressive today, though a dramatic leap across a chasm near the end of the movie seems to get lost in the hugeness of the effects. The sets are built with a touch of German expressionism, further emphasizing that this is a surreal world rather than a real one.
Did the colorized version of She work? I viewed the black-and-white original first; it's relatively clear of marks and lines for a 1935 movie. The colorized version at times looks faded—or exaggerated, as in the pale, ghostly face of Leo's uncle early in the picture. Overall, it's nonobtrusive and, if not absolutely natural, close. Legend Films didn't do a bad job with the colorization, but you should check out the black-and-white original version first, since Cooper and company did a good job of creating a memorable look for the film within its original constraints.
The commentary by author Mark Cotta Vaz and special-effects legend Ray Harryhausen goes with the colorized version of the movie, explaining the process and how Harryhausen came up with the color palette. The back-and-forth between Cotta Vaz and Harryhausen plays like both an interview and a conversation between friends as Harryhausen recalls the glory age of the big screen and both men provide facts about the movie. Cotta Vaz does a good job of pointing out the differences between the movie and the book.
The extras are rounded out by a deleted scene, which features Tanya confronting She and Holly questioning She's right-hand man; an all-too-brief interview with Ray Harryhausen about the movie; a text biography and filmography of Harryhausen; a segment on the colorization process, and a batch of trailers which includes modern trailers for She and Things to Come.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While the movie roughly follows the events of H. Rider Haggard's novel, this She is pure Hollywood spectacle, 1930s style, complete with happy ending. If you have any doubts about that, you'll lose them about the time Ray Harryhausen himself points out the "touch of Busby Berkeley" in a ceremonial dance late in the picture.
The immortal-vs.-human romantic triangle theme highlighted in She might seem all too familiar to modern sci-fi fans, since it's been worked into the second season of Doctor Who.
The colorization here does what the process was meant to do: bringing a lesser-known movie back to the forefront. Thanks to DVDs, you can watch She in black-and-white or color, so purists won't be left out in the cold.
Since Merian C. Cooper had planned to film She in color, it gives movie buffs a chance to ponder what the more expensive version would have been like. There's no sure answer, of course, but this one is handled nicely, following original source material whenever possible.
Not guilty. She isn't perfect, but if you saw the original King Kong and want to see more from where that came from, you'll want to book this tour to "the world's utmost Northern rim."
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Legend Films
• Audio Commentary by Ray Harryhausen
Review content copyright © 2007 James A. Stewart; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.